Merrow Down

(notes edited by Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe)



The poem first appeared in Just So Stories in 1902. Part 1 follows the story “How the First Letter was Written” and Part 2 comes after the next story “How the Alphabet was Made”. They have no title there. They appear as “Merrow Down” when collected in Songs from Books and subsequently in Inclusive Verse, Definitive Verse, and the Sussex and Burwash editions.

When “How the First Letter was Written” was printed in the Ladies’ Home Journal in December 1901 it did not have the poem with it. “How the Alphabet was Made” was not published in a magazine before it appeared in the book.


The final verse of Part 2 must be the saddest verse in all of Kipling’s works. Josephine, his much-loved elder daughter, died of pneumonia in March 1899. (Kipling had pneumonia at the same time and almost died as well. It was some time before his doctors would allow him to be told of her death.) This poem shows how very deeply he still missed her three years later.

Most critics agree that Kipling’s story “They”, published in 1904, is part of his ongoing process of grieving. The narrator comes across a house inhabited by the ghosts of dead children, recognises his own daughter among them, and realises that he must not come again. Lord Birkenhead (p. 314) links the story and the poem: Kipling’s tender, personal side, so fiercely guarded, so much his own secret property, was revealed cautiously in the allegory “They”, and more fully in “Merrow Down”.

See also our notrs on “I Keep Six Honest Serving-men“”

Notes on the Text

[Title] Merrow Down: Merrow was a village in Surrey, now a suburb of Guildford.

Part I

[Verse 1] the river Wey: a tributary of the Thames which flows through Guildford.

[Verse 2] dark Phoenicians: The Phoenicians, a sea-faring people from what is now Syria, are thought to have come to Cornwall in prehistoric times, to trade for tin, an essential component of bronze. See Verse 3 line 4.

Kipling brings them in because, in the classical tradition, they are said to have been the inventors of writing. Hence “long and long before” in stanza 4: Kipling is amusing himself with the idea that writing was in fact first invented in Britain. But this imagined, forgotten first invention of writing also poignantly echoes the obliteration of Taffy/Josephine through death. [D.H.]

[Verse 3] Whitby jet: Jet is a black mineral that takes a high polish and is used for ornaments. Whitby in Yorkshire is the best-known source in England.

torques: neck-ornaments.

[Verse 4] Taffy and her Daddy: Taffy and her Daddy figure in three Just So Stories,How the First Letter was Written“, “How the Alphabet was Made“, and “TheTabu Tale“. ‘Taffy’ is short for Taffimai Metallumai, which means ‘Small-person-without-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked’, and her Daddy is Tegumai Bopsulai, which means, ‘Man–who–does–not–put–his–foot–forward–in–a–hurry’   Their relationship must be based on Kipling’s own memories of his lost daughter Josephine, which echo through this poem.

See Thomas Pinney (Ed.) Letters II p. 310, letter to C.E. Norton, 16 Aug. 1897].

[Verse 5] Bramley, Shere, Shamley: places near Guildford,

[Verse 6]  cut a noble figure:  Cutting figures is literally what Taffy and Tegumai are doing as they invent the letter and writing. [‘D.H.]


Part II

[Verse 4] elf-locks: a mass of tangled hair.

[Verse 5] damp-wood smoke: a fire with damp wood on it to make smoke and show up at a distance.

[Verse 6] See the Introduction



© Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2014 All rights reserved